Helping Autistic Kids with Transitions
By Maria Davis-Pierre, LMHC for PBS Kids
Transitions can be difficult for a lot of children, but you want to be sure to pay close attention to them when your child is autistic. Transitions come in many forms, such as from activity to activity, subject to subject, place to place, etc. As your child gets older, some transitions may be easier and some new challenges could also arise. As a mother of two autistic children, I can tell you from experience that one of the most helpful things you can do is to equip your child with skills that will help them with daily transitions.
Reminders and time limits. Reminders and time limits are especially important when moving from a preferred activity to another less desirable one. When your child is doing an activity they enjoy (like playing video games or watching a show) and they have to transition to something they are not looking forward to (like bedtime or bath time), providing reminders and a time limit can help ease them to the next activity. In my home, we use a timer so our children can visually see the time they have left with the activity they are doing. Check out the Parenting Minutes video Autism: Everyday Transitions to see an example of this technique at work.
- Visual schedules. You can create a visual schedule for your child for home use and you can also advocate for a visual schedule to be added to your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan as an accommodation to be used while in school. A visual schedule, which can include images and text illustrating events and tasks, can be used in many ways. For example, your child can have it on their desk to see what is coming up next, which can be a way to ease anxiety. Older children can check off activities they have completed and look forward to getting to an activity they enjoy. In order to help increase your child’s independence, you can color code some “flexible” tasks on the schedule (for example, highlight them in green) and let your child choose the order in which to complete them. For example, if bath time is highlighted in green, your child could move it from one spot to another on the schedule, such as from before dinner to after dinner.
- Visual stories. Visual stories are simple descriptions of a concept or situation through images, videos, text and/or narration. One way to create a visual story is by using actual pictures or videos of the items or locations you are talking about. For instance, it can include pictures of your child, pictures of their family, teachers, school building, car, places in their school, and many other things. This can be helpful as it uses real-life examples that the child can see and understand. When my daughter was younger, changes in our daily routine would be difficult for her, so we used visual stories for certain situations. For instance, if she had a field trip, her teacher would create a visual story showing what we anticipated her day would be like. Another example of the use of a visual story would be when trying something new. For instance, if it was my child’s first trip to the barber to get a haircut I would create a storyboard about what to expect on the first trip to the barbershop. When creating a visual story, it is important to provide a description of what might happen on the field trip, but it is important not to be too exact (for example, at the circus we will see elephants) in case something might change (for example, there are not elephants in the circus on the day you go).
- Safety planning. Sometimes a transition can include an unexpected change, like having a substitute teacher. This modification can be disconcerting to an autistic child. My son has a safety plan at school and one of the specific items on his safety plan is regarding his teacher being absent. This is a transition that we have a plan for as he does better with people with whom he is familiar. So in his safety plan, when his teacher is absent or at a meeting, he goes to another class with a teacher he knows and who knows him.
The suggestions presented in this article can help your child experience less emotional upset when experiencing change. Helping your child know that transitions are coming and what to expect is a way to help them be more comfortable with normal life transitions.
Tips to help you and your child identify
and express emotions
Watch for facial expressions, behavior, and play. Our children may not have the words to express what they’re feeling, so those feelings may occur through other means. In the examples above, both of my children are not verbally expressing their emotion, but their body language is giving me the context clues. In order to be sure I am reading those context clues correctly, I will do a follow up with them. I will say, “Are you enjoying that show (video, book, etc.)?” or have them point to a feeling word that expresses how they are feeling. At times children will act out their feelings in play. Your child may be playing with dolls and acting out a “scene,” but it’s really something they may be experiencing. When my children do this, I will play along with them and walk them through it. For example, if we are playing with dolls and my child is saying the other doll did something he didn’t like and hit the doll, I would model what we could do instead of hitting.
Watch how you express and react to emotion. Our children are constantly watching us and will imitate what they see. If I am demonstrating that certain feelings are not acceptable (frustration, anger, etc.), they can internalize that and begin to feel like they cannot express those emotions freely.
Educate your child about the different types of emotions and let them know that they can feel emotions in their body. I use feelings cards so they can look and identify with the feeling. I follow up by asking them where they feel that emotion in their body. For example, when I feel nervous I can feel flips in my stomach.
Encourage and support all forms of communication. Your child may not like to verbally express, but may like the use of visuals, journaling, drawing, etc.
Provide validation to their feelings and let them know that you hear them. Make it a practice to check in with them daily about their feelings. Conversation starters can include: What was your favorite part of your day? Did you have a least favorite part of your day? For older children, you can ask: What was a high moment for you today? What was a low moment for you today? Provide pictures or emotion cards for children to communicate their feelings, as needed.
As parents we need to take time out for ourselves and intentionally check in with our own emotions. Take a break and have some moments of silence to be alone with your thoughts and acknowledge your feelings. We can’t have the expectation for our kids to be able to process their emotions if we as parents are not processing our own. Using these skills and many others that work for you and your child can help everyone be better advocates for themselves. #